Jazz Institute of Chicago

Reconstructing Dean Benedetti

Reconstructing Dean Benedetti
by Keith Henson

Dean Benedetti is mentioned in Reisner's Bird, The Legend of Charlie Parker (1962) as a saxophone player who followed Bird around the country recording him. Later, Dean Benedetti was introduced to the world on page one of Ross Russell's book, Bird Lives!, published in 1973. Since then Russell's portrait of Benedetti has been transmitted by various jazz authors from the erudite (Gioia) and the hip (Jack Chambers), to the totally uncool and pretentious masquerading as erudite (James Lincoln Collier).

Russell's depiction of Benedetti is hardly flattering. According to Russell, Benedetti was a competent alto player who, upon hearing Parker, abandoned his own instrument and settled on a new vocation and "his life's work, following Parker around" and making "wire recordings" of him. Russell's Benedetti is Bird's pimp—"the score cat" and "social secretary"—a fawning groupie who puts together Bird's horn and checks his reed.

Russell labels Benedetti, "a broken saxophone player" who gives up music and peddles pot to pursue Bird. Bird humiliates him musically and Benedetti humiliates himself in his affectations at becoming a "white Negro," such as using a limited vocabulary with purposeful grammatical errors.

Indeed, Dean's alleged real reason for quitting his horn is his realization that he cannot become a "Negro." He is thereby shut out of the culture and cultural experience necessary for someone to play like Bird. So monocular, fanatical, and worshipping is Benedetti that he records only Bird's solos. Of course such a hero worshipper would, like Bird, become a junkie. Gioia completes the story. Benedetti "followed Parker's descent into drug addiction and died at an early age." And, of course, it's guys like Benedetti that ruined Parker.

Russell writes that Benedetti was "a devoted menace, one of the sycophants who surround Charlie and made it difficult for him [Parker] to come to grips with the real world." The wire recordings, squirreled away in a trunk, were never found, and became the Holy Grail of jazz.

Now, I'm never one to let the facts get in the way of a good story. I have no problem with Russell's novel, The Sound (1961), a fictional work where a character, loosely based on Benedetti, is named "Royo." Fiction is fiction. But Bird Lives! is biography and history.

Russell presents himself as a jazz historian. His book, Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest was published by the University of California Press in 1971. With history, telling a good story should not be done at the cost of the truth and at the expense of the reputation of a person when unwarranted. Sadly for Benedetti, it appears that Russell did just that by taking his fictionalized Royo and turning him into the historical Benedetti.

The fact is that there were no wire recordings. Like most of what Russell wrote about Dean Benedetti, it's untrue. The tapes and discs Benedetti recorded were in the possession of Dean's brother, Rick Benedetti, who sold them to Mosaic Records in 1988. With the release of The Complete Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker, Mosaic has made available "one of the major historic finds of the century." Yet they (Phil Schaap, Bob Porter, and Jim Patrick) have also taken great pains to set the story straight about Dean Benedetti.

In short, Schaap holds, "There is no portion of Russell's portrait that cannot be disproved." Russell's Benedetti is a "tall tale." So little of what Russell wrote about Benedetti is true that Schaap concludes that for him, Russell "has destroyed his credentials as a historian." Miles Davis leveled a harsher appraisal of Russell—"slimy" and a "a jive motherfucker."

The perpetuated myth about Benedetti is familiar to any serious student of jazz. Relatively few are going to shell out $115 to buy the Mosaic set and have the pleasure of reading the included book that reconstructs Dean Benedetti. So here I will do my part to correct the record as set forth and documented by Schaap, Porter, and Patrick.

Dean Benedetti was a highly Lestorian tenor player and band leader in California. In the spring of 1945 he heard a recording of Bird and, like so many others, his musical life changed. He did not quit playing in response to Bird. He studied Bird. He transcribed solos, worked them up as set pieces, and began incorporating the bop vocabulary into his playing. Joining him in this project was trombonist Jimmy Knepper who played in Benedetti's band.

Their enthusiasm was infectious. One night Mingus subbed in B's band at a gig in San Pedro. Knepper relates that, "It impressed Mingus that we were all enthused about Charlie Parker. Mingus told me much later that he hadn't paid too much attention, then he said, 'Oh, these white boys are into Charlie Parker, I'd better give him another listen.'"

When Benedetti heard that Parker was coming to LA in early 1947, Benedetti, like every other musician around, made it a point to be there. But Benedetti, a serious student of this new music, wanted more musical fodder upon which to munch than was currently available on commercial discs as the time. So Dean bought himself a tape recorder from Sears. Later he would record on acetate discs. He did not buy a wire recorder. There are no "wire recordings." Jimmy Knepper owned a Silvertone wire recorder but never Benedetti.

Dean also recognized the singular genius of Parker and the importance of Parker's solos. It was not that Dean was not interested in the music of the other players. Considerations were much more pragmatic, e.g., the cost of tape and acetate discs and the difficulty of editing, and the purpose for which the tapes were made—musical study and analysis of Parker—not commercial recordings. Benedetti was a musicologist and musician, not a chauvinistic fanatic. In fact, he transcribed the solos of other bop players as well, like Ernie Henry and Sonny Stitt.

Benedetti recorded Bird early in 1947 during a two week engagement at the Hi-De-Ho Club. In 1948, like so many other musicians, Dean (and Knepper) headed to New York and lived a desperate hand-to-mouth existence. While in New York, Dean recorded Parker on March 31, 1948, and on July 7, 10, 11, 1948. That is the extent of the archive. He did not follow Bird around the country.

While in New York in 1948, Benedetti and Knepper started using heroin, along with another of Benedetti's former sidemen, Russ Freeman. By the end of 1948, Benedetti, unable to break into the New York music scene as a player, returned to his parent's home in California. To finance the trip home and "do some more work transcribing Bird," Knepper said he and Dean decided to sell some drugs. However, Knepper split with the drugs for LA and left Dean in New York. According to primary witnesses, this is the closest Dean Benedetti ever came to becoming a drug dealer.

Upon his return to California, Dean continued to practice, play, study and transcribe. He corresponded with Knepper and exchanged and edited transcriptions. Then the bad news came. Dean was suffering from a rare muscle disease, Myasthenia Gravis. It soon affected his playing and Dean stopped performing in public. His health deteriorated and in 1953 he moved to Italy to be with his parents. He died at age 34 on January 20, 1957. To the end he worked on music projects.

Included in the Mosaic set are a few minutes of Benedetti playing and practicing. His tenor sound is highly derivative of Pres. After hearing Parker and switching to alto, Dean plays in a Bird-inspired bebop style. That he had some chops is apparent by the recording of him playing along with Parker on Donna Lee and nailing every note.

Hindered by the perpetuated disservice done by Ross Russell it will, unfortunately, take many years to reconstruct Dean Benedetti. The world of art owes Benedetti a great debt. Our thank you is to pay him the respect he deserves:

Dean Benedetti
musician, musicologist, archivist

Bird, The Legend of Charlie Parker
by Robert Reisner. DaCapo Press, 1962.

Bird Lives!
by Ross Russell. Quartet Books, 1973.

West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960
by Ted Gioia. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Milestones, The Music and Times of Miles Davis
by Jack Chambers. Quill, 1983.

The Making of Jazz
by James Lincoln Collier. Delta, 1978.

The Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker
by Phil Schaap, Bob Porter, and Jim Patrick. Mosaic Records, 1990.

Miles, The Autobiography
by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe. Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, 1989.

Keith Henson is gratefully indebted to the original published work of Phil Schaap, Bob Porter, and Jim Patrick, without which this article could not have been written. The photo above of Dean Benedetti was take by Jimmy Knepper and is from the Mosaic box set. [Ed. Keith Henson's recent octet recording features Pete Christlieb (on bari) and Don Lanphere and Bert Wilson. Details can be found on his website, www.accessone.com/~khenson/]

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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